Reading of the Week: The Kids are Alright – The New England Journal of Medicine and Childhood Mental Health Disorders

The rate of severe mental illness among children and adolescents has dropped substantially in the past generation, researchers reported Wednesday, in an analysis that defies public perceptions of trends in youngsters’ mental health.

So begins The New York Times’ front-section coverage of a big paper in a big journal with a big result.

This paper, just published by The New England Journal of Medicine, considers the rate and treatment of childhood mental health impairment. In contrast to other surveys, this paper didn’t find a rise in the rate of mental illness. (Contrast this finding with the comment of a former president of the American Psychiatric Association that such illnesses are “an epidemic hidden in plain view” – that is, obviously there but underreported historically.)

Explains the lead author, Dr. Mark Olfson:

The finding is robust and real and challenges the prevailing stereotype that young people are somehow more vulnerable to mental problems.

Dr. Mark Olfson

How common is mental impairment among children and adolescents? How has this changed in recent years? How are patients being treated? Are we prescribing more than in the past? Olfson et al. seek answers to these important questions in “Trends in Mental Health Care among Children and Adolescents” – this week’s Reading. Continue reading

Reading of the Week: Dr. Gawande and ‘Low-Value Care’

It was lunchtime before my afternoon surgery clinic, which meant that I was at my desk, eating a ham-and-cheese sandwich and clicking through medical articles. Among those which caught my eye: a British case report on the first 3-D-printed hip implanted in a human being, a Canadian analysis of the rising volume of emergency-room visits by children who have ingested magnets, and a Colorado study finding that the percentage of fatal motor-vehicle accidents involving marijuana had doubled since its commercial distribution became legal. The one that got me thinking, however, was a study of more than a million Medicare patients. It suggested that a huge proportion had received care that was simply a waste.

The researchers called it “low-value care.” But, really, it was no-value care. They studied how often people received one of twenty-six tests or treatments that scientific and professional organizations have consistently determined to have no benefit or to be outright harmful.

So begins Dr. Atul Gawande’s recent essay in The New Yorker, which I have chosen as this week’s Reading.

It asks a simple question: what can we do about this?

Dr. Atul Gawande

Dr. Gawande, a general surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, is a prolific writer; he is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and has penned several bestselling books, including Being Mortal and The Checklist Manifesto.

In this piece, Dr. Gawande focuses on overtreatment. Indeed, the title is a good summary: “Overkill.” Continue reading

Reading of the Week: Depression and Employment

I want to get back to work… I want to get back to my life.

A patient recently made this comment to me. Before his depression, he had thrived at a government job and taken great pride in his work. (He showed me iPhone pictures of an event he had helped organize which was keynoted by the premier.) But in the cloud of depression, he left his job, and worried that he would never have another one.

This raises a simple question: how do you get patients like this back to work?

It seems like an obvious question to ask – and very relevant one. After all, many people with depression are off work, or have left the workforce altogether. A Towers Watson report considered disability in North America; mental health issues (typically “depression, anxiety and stress”) contribute to 78% of short-term and 67% of long-term disability claims in Canada. Let’s put that in perspective: for short-term disability, cancer was well under half that.

Yet if the burden of illness is great, little has been written about interventions to get patients with depression back to work. A 2008 Cochrane review identified only 11 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) on interventions aimed at reducing work disability in workers with major depressive disorder (and just four studies including work functioning as an outcome measure). A more recent Cochrane review considered 13 randomized controlled trials; only three studies, for example, looked at antidepressant therapy.

That’s why this week’s Reading is so interesting. “Gains in employment status following antidepressant medication or cognitive therapy for depression” by Jay C. Fournier et al. compares drug management with psychological interventions (CBT). Continue reading

Reading of the Week: Economics and Mental Illness

For John Mooney, it was a career highlight. In March the Irish cricketer took a crucial catch that gave his team the victory in a World Cup match and eliminated the higher-ranked Zimbabwe. But afterwards the Zimbabwe Herald, a daily paper with links to Zanu-PF, the thuggish ruling party, claimed that Mr. Mooney had lied when he said that his foot had not been touching the boundary, meaning the catch should have been disallowed. The article cited previous interviews in which the sportsman had spoken frankly about his long battles with drink, depression and suicidal thoughts. Under pressure, it claimed, a “man of such a character” could not be trusted to have “the honesty, let alone the decency” to tell the truth.

John Mooney, cricketer, Ireland “player of the year” (2010), and a man with depression

So begins this week’s Reading.

The essay provides an excellent summary of the impact of mental health on our society and our economy. It also notes reasons for hope. Indeed, Mr. Mooney’s story is moving: after the Zimbabwe Herald attack, fearing that others may be reluctant to talk about their mental illness in light of his harassment, Mr. Mooney chose to publicly speak about his battle with depression. The article notes:

The reaction was heartening. Messages and thanks are still coming in.

This essay is readable and concise. “Out of the shadows: The stigma of mental illness is fading. But it will take time for sufferers to get the treatment they need” is a must read. Here’s the surprise: it was published in an economics magazine.

Welcome to 2015, where thoughtful analysis on mental health issues isn’t just for the psychiatry journals anymore. Continue reading

Reading of the Week: Zen or Zoloft? Mindfulness vs. Meds for Relapse Prevention in Depression

Depression typically has a relapsing and recurrent course. Without ongoing treatment, individuals with recurrent depression have a high risk of repeated depressive relapses or recurrences throughout their life with rates of relapse or recurrence typically in the range 50–80%.

So begins this week’s Reading (which is attached). As is so often the case, the journal writing is understated.

50-80%. Wow.

Having been in practice for some years, many stories come to mind when considering this statistic.

Here’s one: a young woman with a challenging childhood who pulled her life together, kept an unplanned pregnancy, and then tried to do everything right for herself and her daughter. In her late 20s, she fell into a deep depression, attempted suicide, and had a long admission. And, after work on the inpatient unit and in the outpatient department, she returned to her life: free of symptoms, working full time, raising her daughter. Feeling well, she stopped her citalopram, and became sick again (and with an employer keen on her termination because – and this sounds like a 19th century novel – “she told me I look dead on the outside”).

It’s easy to say that she should have stayed on her medications. But many of our patients don’t. The reasons vary – the side effects are too strong, the concept of medications is unappealing, etc. – but the end result is so often the same.

What then are non-medication options for maintenance in patients with depression? This week’s Reading offers an interesting answer: mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.

Continue reading

Reading of the Week: Can Crowdsourcing Treat Depression?

Social networks aspire to connect people, which is a noble but naive goal. When we uncritically accept connection as a good thing, we overlook difficult, important questions: Are some forms of virtual communication more nourishing than others? Might some in fact be harmful? Is it possible that Facebook, for instance, leaves some people feeling more lonely? No one knows for sure. We tend to build things first and worry about the effects they have on us later.

Robert Morris is taking the opposite approach. Starting with the desired effect of helping people deal with depression, he developed Panoply, a crowdsourced website for improving mental health.

So begins this week’s Reading.

This is not your typical selection. Though the disease discussed is depression, the treatment involves social networks, not sertraline. The article is well written, but it doesn’t appear in the pages of World Psychiatry but Wired. The article details therapy, but with a focus on apps, not Adler. CBT is important, but crowdsourcing is talked about more than cognitive distortions.

Welcome to psychiatry in the 21st century.

Continue reading

Reading of the Week: Dr. Kurdyak’s Paper on Psychiatry and Practice

A few months ago, a patient walked into my office and immediately broke down. He explained that he had waited so long to see a psychiatrist that he was overwhelmed to finally meet me. For the record, he had never spoken to me before and knew nothing about me – except that I was a psychiatrist and that he needed to see one.

The surprise is that anyone would be surprised by such a story.

Patients often face long wait lists in our health care system. The wait for psychiatric care seems particularly long. But here’s the question: do we have a shortage of psychiatrists in Ontario – or do we have a shortage of creative thinking on how psychiatrists practice in Ontario? The week’s Reading asks this important question, with a surprising conclusion: “increasing psychiatrist supply will have little impact on patients’ access.” Continue reading

Reading of the Week: “36 minutes and 40 seconds”

Cat Stevens’ Tea For The Tillerman is a short album.

11 songs. 36 minutes and 40 seconds. In 2003, Rolling Stone included it in its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In 2007, the album was included in The Definitive 200 Albums of All Time. It has appeared in many other lists compiled by sages of the music industry.

And it is the last album my father ever heard.

On Oct 8, 2003, Michael John Hasler (I rarely say his name— it’s nice to type it here) died by suicide. He’d been listening to the CD, which was now still and quiet in the portable stereo close by.

This week’s Reading is a short essay by comedian and playwright Sadie Hasler on the death of her father a dozen years ago, which appears in the latest issue of The Lancet Psychiatry. Continue reading

Reading of the Week: Germanwings, Depression and Violence

Is depression linked to violence? And if it is, what are the clinical implications? This Reading of the Week asks these two questions.

On the Germanwings’ Tragedy

Certainly in light of recent events, the depression-violence link is much discussed. Some have already weighed in. Consider this incredibly offensive newspaper front page.

“Madman.” “Crazed.” And if only that sort of language was restricted to tabloids. Last week, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said: “everything is pointing towards an act that we can’t describe: criminal, crazy, suicidal.” It’s enough to make us nostalgic for the Sarkozy administration. (Who would have predicted such nostalgia three years ago?)

To be clear, though coverage has been breathless, little is known. In a thoughtful piece in The Atlantic titled “Depressed Doesn’t Mean Dangerous,” Julie Beck notes: “What evidence we have of Lubitz’s mental health or lack thereof is still scant.” Indeed, we can’t answer the most basic questions. Was the ill-fated flight’s co-pilot in active treatment for depression? Was he on medications? What was his mental state in the days leading up to the tragedy? Continue reading

Reading of the Week: Paying Pregnant Women to Stop Smoking

This cigarette-package warning label is short, thoughtful, and completely backed by science.

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Unfortunately, many Canadian women – statistically, 1 in 10 – ignore it and so much other health information, continuing to smoke when pregnant.

What can be done?

Corporate boards give CEOs bonuses when their companies are profitable. Governments (like Canada’s) award athletes with money when they win Olympic medals. Universities give scholarships for academic achievements. So, should we give financial incentives to pregnant women who stop smoking? A recently published British Medical Journal paper suggests that we should. And this controversial paper is the Reading of the Week. Continue reading